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Back to women in data

Professor Kathy Whaler

Picture by Lesley Martin, interview by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Professor Kathy Whaler

Professor of Geophysics, Grant Institute School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh

You need to work out what works for you, as a female scientist, then go out and make it happen

Can you tell us about your journey to your current role?
I’ve been a standard academic, I suppose – I registered to do a Physics degree (at the University of Sussex) and half way through I decided that Mathematical Physics would suit me better! So I did that instead. I was the only female in my year, which was about 70 students. There were quite a lot of female students doing Maths and because this overlapped with my degree, I did find other female students in some classes. I loved my Physics degree but I couldn’t see myself doing it at PhD level – being one of a 1000 authors on an academic paper, that sort of thing, didn’t appeal.
However, I loved Geography at A-Level so I decided to morph that with my love of Physics, so then I pursued Geophysics.
I moved on to a PhD degree at Cambridge, in the Department for Earth Sciences’ Bullard Labs, working on magnetic fields, which is my area of expertise.
Big data was very interesting then, though what I describe below as ‘big data’ would make anyone today fall about laughing. I’ll tell you about my PhD – I was working in the pre-satellite era for academia, where there had only been a few military satellites and only very few of these, academics had access to. We used permanently running geomagnetic observatories instead to study magnetic fields and there is a network of these around the world. Magnetic fields have three components and these observatories record the activity of these three components. I worked out with the biggest computer I had access to at that time that I could process data from 106 observatories – given the three components, this means 318 data. This was the maximum number I could put in. If you compare that with what we have now – the most cutting-edge is probably the European Space Agency Swarm mission, which is three satellites measuring the three components at a rate of 50 times per second – the transformation in amounts of data since then, and their accessibility due to the worldwide web, is just immense.
I don’t tend to work on raw data, I work with data that have been processed by other people. When I think back to my PhD – some poor person had to sit there and manually process them, producing only one value per month, of what the changes were in the magnetic field in those three components.

Can you explain a bit more about your expertise?
So my theory is that the changes in the magnetic field reflect the processes in the deep interior. About halfway to the centre of the Earth, it changes from being rocky (rocks are dominated by silicate) to being liquid, molten iron. It’s very hot. You have runny liquid iron moving around, and it’s a great conductor of electricity. This produces a magnetic field. I’m interesting in the processes that create magnetic fields, specifically how that liquid is moving. You can make a career out of studying this, can you believe? (laughs)
While I was a PhD student, I had a single author paper published on that! My supervisor said ‘right, well, now you’ve done something’. When you’ve ‘Done Something’ (with a big D and a big S) ‘you need to get yourself known in the United States’. He said, ‘go and find someone to work with in the USA’. So, I did (by post, as this was the days before email!). I had a wonderful supervisor; he was a great mentor me. Even now I ask myself ‘what would he do in that situation?’ I don’t go to him much for advice these days because he is retired. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, so was a fantastic referee, and really helped me through my career (as was the scientist I worked for on that first trip to the USA).
I worked in Southern California by the beach! My task was to program up some theory that my supervisor there had developed on inferring how well rocks in the sub-surface conduct electricity by measuring how electric and magnetic fields change at the Earth’s surface, a technique called electromagnetic induction. The theory was very important, so the paper we wrote on this has been highly-cited.
I was meant to be there for two weeks. Three months later, my PhD supervisor was saying ‘Oi, come back! Where is your PhD and your fellowship and grant applications?’ I had too good a time. I came back to Cambridge, finished my PhD, and secured an independent fellowship as a Post-Doc there for a couple of years.
I started looking around for jobs and got a lectureship at the University of Leeds. I was there for 11 years. One of my tasks was to teach on a taught Masters’ programme in Exploration Geophysics, which was outside of my comfort zone, as my background isn’t in exploration or geology. They looked at what I’d done before, and said ‘so you work in electromagnetic induction? why don’t you start a research programme?’ The department had a British Council funded link in geophysics with the University of Zimbabwe, and there are lots of interesting problems out there that geophysics can tackle. I was quaking in my boots about starting this programme but I did it. This got me started on collecting my own data and led to projects in East Africa and New Zealand. It’s great to get out in the field rather than working with data that is sent to you, back then usually on a tape and now downloaded from the internet. One of the most interesting projects I did was in the North Eastern part of Ethiopia; this was an area where unexpectedly in 2005 a volcano erupted and there was a bunch of small earthquakes. Magma (molten rock) was forcing its way in and breaking the Earth apart over a huge distance, causing the eruption and all these little earthquakes that were measured – it was called a seismo-magmatic crisis. Our consortium used a bunch of techniques including ‘petrology’, looking at the chemical composition of the rocks, which helped me interpret the amounts of magma in the subsurface consistent with my electromagnetic induction data, and satellite data to assess how the ground had deformed.
I was applying for promotion as a senior lecturer at Leeds when I was encouraged, by various people, to apply for the Chair at the University of Edinburgh, including by an incredible female geophysicist who was years ahead of her time. She worked in several African universities after her PhD before joining Edinburgh and was a fantastic mentor to me.

Do you find your current role supportive of women?
I would say my current role is neither ‘supportive’ nor ‘unsupportive of women’. It intends and tries to be supportive.
It has changed a little since I first started. Retention really is the problem. I’ve managed to keep going and I’ve not suffered from the glass ceiling or sticky floor issues that other women have because I was promoted at a young age and had a lot of support. However, all around me, I see different experiences.
Obviously, I hope things get better for women. They have over the course of my career, though there is still a way to go. The things that have changed while I’ve been working in science are mostly legislative. This has generated some associated culture shift, but not enough. I think there was an expectation that greater numbers of women would fix things automatically, but this hasn’t happened. I still feel the need to try to be a role model for women.

Can you tell us about what a typical day looks like for you now?
I’m studying volcanos in the main Ethiopian rift, where there is a risk of eruption that we’re trying to quantify better. I’m also working on European Space Agency Swarm satellite magnetic data. Those are the two main projects, scientifically. Plus I’m part of a space weather project – this is societally important because space weather, such as magnetic storms, can have really significant impacts on our technology. This is looking at the impacts on grounded infrastructure, such as what happens to the power supply, or will trains have to stop because all the signals go to red?
I’m the first female Vice President of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics and the sole candidate to become the first female President. I’ve been on the Natural Environment Research Council Training Advisory Board, which looks at training for early career and PhD researchers, to ensure they are equipped for work both inside and outside academia. In general, I enjoy that stuff because it takes me out of my comfort zone and I get to meet people I don’t usually meet. I’ve done a lot of reviews of other university earth sciences departments and natural sciences faculties– I should pull out my CV, shouldn’t I? (laughs) I keep myself very busy. I’ve had a good few PhD students. I still teach a lot, as well.
Because there are few women, it has meant that I’ve also sat on a million committees!

What are you proud of?
I was on the Quality Working Group for the European Space Agency. We were on the mission advisory group prior to launch in 2013, making sure everything met specifications. It is an incredibly successful mission.
I was Head of the Department at the University of Edinburgh from 1999-2002; the first woman Head. I’ve been Head of the Research Institute, as well, and been involved in various female mentoring programmes.

What do you recommend to women and girls who’d like to go in to your line of work?
Do what interests you. I tend to avoid things that I don’t feel stimulated by. I also took an early decision that I was never going to be secretary for anything as this is the role that women are usually given when they’re involved with committees. I can remember doing a mentoring programme and talking to early career researchers and saying “volunteer to be the chair, or a member, but not secretary”. I think it’s reinforcing stereotypes to take on these sorts of roles. I’ve been lucky – I’ve used mentors, mostly male mentors. I’d find someone whose judgement you trust, to talk to when something is worrying you, or to tackle a difficult problem.
I was President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2004-2006 and I’m looking at my administrative responsibilities – awards panel, international board evaluation, research appointments – that sort of thing, not secretarial roles.
You need to work out what works for you, as a female scientist, then go out and make it happen. You need to be conscious of the data and statistics – for example, if a woman speaks for more than 1/3 of the time, she is perceived to dominate the conversation. If you’re a woman, you’re less likely to have your paper published in science and nature, you have to work x-times harder. A Cardiff study was just released that says: it’s not having children that hold women back, it’s being a woman. So, I have tried to immerse myself in those debates and get unconscious bias training. It’s interesting but there’s not much you can do in many ways.
Another thing I did that was helpful – scientific work is collaborative and it’s helpful to know if you have personality traits that can make you fall out with colleagues. There are tests and training for improving qualities that allow you to work better with others. Have that awareness, don’t be so self-involved. Be aware of your impact on others around you.
I’ve been lucky because I’ve always been in male environments and my personality is more of the typical male scientist that female. If that isn’t you, it’s worth thinking about how you can work in those settings.

What do you look forward to in your work?
Actually, I look forward to most things in work – I enjoy research and teaching, but also I enjoy the interactions I get with others with, such as committee work, so administration isn’t all bad either! I normally look forward to trips, be they for field work or conferences, and enjoy the chance to travel. This is especially true with field work because you go to places to work so get a different ‘feel’ to the place from what going as a tourist would give you. I like presenting my own research (through conferences/meetings and journal papers), and also having my research students present theirs and it being well received – not just because I can bask in reflected glory, but because it’s good to see the next generation succeed.

To finish up, do you have a hero or heroine or a fun fact about yourself?
No, I don’t have a specific hero/heroine. As I mentioned during the interview, I had several mentors and supporters from the start or near the start of my career who’ve been really important to me. Fun fact? Maybe that I have an asteroid named after me. I think I also mentioned that I was President of the Royal Astronomical Society – it’s the Learned Society that also covers solid Earth geophysics. (It makes sense because we can now apply techniques that were originally developed to study the Earth to other solar system bodies – like I’ve worked on Mars and Moon. In the early days of geophysics, quite a lot of the developments were by those who also worked in astronomy.) The International Astronomical Union named Minor Planet 5914 kathywhaler after me on my birthday in 2006, the year I completed my term of office as Royal Astronomical Society President.